Four Futures Of School Reform Reactions, Right Now!

Fun event at the Aspen Institute this morning around the Futures of School Reform book and about the themes the project surfaced more generally. You can watch the event on Cspan later today (don’t miss HGSE’s Richard Elmore on the second panel).  I was part of the Futures project and it was an outstanding chance to step back from the day-to-day and really think about what might be possible and/or desirable in education with a diverse group of people.  A valuable exercise and the organizers at HGSE deserve a lot of credit.

Today’s event featured certain chapters – but the entire book warrants reading – and a few things stand out for me based on the ideas in Futures and the discussion this morning:

Poverty.  Futures features a chapter looking at what schools can/should do to better integrate efforts to address the conditions of poverty with schooling.  That naturally sparked a predictable debate about poverty and education. Honestly, for a field that allegedly doesn’t pay a lot of attention to poverty we sure do talk about it a lot! More seriously, it’s a frustrating “debate” because there is – among all sides of the education debate – generally agreement that poverty matters and is an issue.  There is also a fair amount of  agreement on social policy remedies and concern about the ridiculous levels of child poverty we tolerate today, although this can break down more, but far from exclusively, along party lines.

Where there is lot of disagreement is around what all this means for education policy.  In my view the crux question is the ‘all else equal one.’ Basically all else equal should we expect more from schools than they are delivering today?  Before you answer bear in mind that we have sub-60 percent graduation rates for minorities, 8 percent of low-income students earn a B.A. by age 24, etc… One can answer that question by saying, yes.  One can also say, yes, we should, and we should also be doing more to support children and families.  One can also answer it saying, no, we should not.  It’s a stark question but its starkness leads to policy and public spending choices either way rather than what we have now – an ascriptive debate that obscures a fair amount of common ground as well as the hard choices.

Choice. To me this is the most future of the futures issues. More choice and a mixed model of schooling is coming, it’s just a question of how fast and what it looks like.  People can disagree about whether that’s good or bad but the choice genie is out of the bottle and in this country we like choices. As I noted today at the event, choice is like gay marriage.  The polling on gay marriage makes it pretty clear that the demographics favor it and it’s going to happen because younger people favor it.   So opponents of gay marriage can slow down its legalization now but over time they are checkmated by demographics.  The  same is true of expanding choice in education, in my view.

What we talk too little about, however, is another stark question: Choice brings with it many benefits but it also has drawbacks. Today we put up with low-quality (and a lot of educational inequality) today, how much should and will we tolerate under a more choice-driven system?  It’s too glib to say that competition will take care of this – in education so far the evidence suggests otherwise.  And in most walks of life we recognize that some inequality is the price you pay for progress. It’s why, in general, we don’t have markets that are maximized just for efficiency but instead have regulations.  And it’s why we balk when inequality seems to be too great.  When it comes to choice we should be talking frankly about this question and without the easy answers that good policy or more political courage will take care of it.

Teachers’ jobs.  There is plenty of debate about the policy side of the teacher issue – evaluations, preparation and licensing, tenure and so forth but the school side is a huge issue, too.  We have to – within the context of the custodial role schools play looking after kids – make them more professionally friendly places. This is not a pro or anti-union issue, the unions have talked about mentoring and career ladders for a generation, for instance, but also support work rules that de-professionalize teaching. Rather, it is about recognizing what professionals today want from a workplace and trying to incorporate that into the life and operations of schools to the extent possible. For example, some flexibility in scheduling, tools and support to better leverage teachers’ work, collaborative models, and so forth. You often hear the quip that school is only worse for the kids than for the teachers.  That overstates it, but not too much.  If we want to professionalize teaching it’s vital to professionalize the job itself, not only the policies that surround it.

It’s going to be micro. Regardless of November’s elections we seem headed for a period of unevenness in policy, expectations, and accountability in education.  You see that in President Obama’s Race to the Top, the No Child Left Behind waivers, and also in Governor Romney’s emphasis on letting states set the course on education.  It all has a theme in common – we’re worrying less about a common floor or approach. Like all policy choices that one has tradeoffs, benefits and costs. But coupled with the decentralized nature of education governance it means that ideas like better integrating social and educational services, incorporating some lessons from overseas (for example around recruitment of teachers) and so forth are going to happen at a more micro level (states, large school districts, etc…) not through some grand stroke of national policy. That matters right now and to every chapter in the book in different ways.

2 Responses to “Four Futures Of School Reform Reactions, Right Now!”

  1. Michelle Quigley Says:

    You bring up so many good points on important issues related to what the world of education in America is now facing. You made a comment about how “Today we put up with low-quality (and a lot of educational inequality)” and I think that statement is at the root of all the other questions, debates and issues that come up in the sphere of education. There are so many different aspects of education that it is overwhelming to try to address all things at once. We have to first ask ourselves and each other, why is it low quality and why is it so very unequal? If we can even begin to answer those questions (yes they are big ones) then we can start to address the true problem.

    While poverty is a huge obstacle, and one I deal with every day teaching at an inner city school. It is the kind of issue that we have to ask ourselves, can we really control this? I think that finding some way to productively address the problems that face our impoverished students is key but I also admit that it’s an enormous task to take on. A task that people have been trying to diminish for generations.

    I think you make a great point though that if change is to happen it will be and need to be on a micro scale. While agreeing on a grander, even national scale, and coming together to all work towards the exact same goals would be great it can only start by coming together on that smaller scale.

  2. John Thompson Says:

    The reality of poverty equals the need to abandon this value-added evaluation fetish. In the near future, can’t we just agree to that?

    Does a workrule protecting their sleep deprofessionalize doctors or airline pilots? Does seniority ( which is our First Amendment) and tenure deprofessionalize pilots and professors? Does due process protections deprofessionalize lawyers? If not, what work rules are you talking about. How many times a week should a surgeon have to inspect the purses of people entering the hospital?

    Re: “school is only worse for the kids than for the teachers”

    We used to say, “feed the teachers or they’ll eat the children.” Contemporary “reform” has been a 20 year test to the maxim, “the feces rolls downhill.”

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